BEIJING — Immediately following one of Finland’s most lopsided defeats in international women’s hockey history, general manager Tuula Puputti marveled with envy at the wealth of talent Canada has mustered.
She began by referring to Canada’s top line centered by captain Marie-Philip Poulin, who drew comparisons to Sidney Crosby for scoring two gold medal-winning goals. Then there’s a second line anchored by 21-year-old Princeton captain Sarah Fillier, who has already scored four times on her Olympic debut.
Puputti, however, didn’t stop there.
“Who wouldn’t want to have their third and fourth lines on their team as well?” said the former guardian, incredulous. “It’s spoiled for choice.”
Much harder to contain.
The faint hope that there was the rest of the world closing the gap on the women’s hockey teams of Canada and the United States was quickly dashed three days after the start of the Beijing Games.
Canada outclassed its first two Group A opponents with a pair of 11-1 wins, starting with Switzerland on Thursday and the Finns on Saturday. And Finland, who won bronze at the 2018 Winter Games and the world championships in August, fared little better against the United States in a 5-2 loss on Thursday night.
The Americans, the reigning Olympic champions, improved to 2-0 by overcoming a slow start in a 5-0 victory over the Russian team later in the day.
In Group B, Haruka Toko had one goal and two assists, and Japan improved to 2-0 with a 6-2 win over Denmark (0-2). The Czech Republic got off to a 2-0 start in their Olympic women’s hockey debut after Tereza Vanisova scored twice in a 3-1 win over Sweden (0-2).
For Puputti, very little has changed in the two months since she called Canada the tournament favorite.
“Today was not our best game, and they came out very strong,” she said.
After Minnamari Tuominen gave Finland a brief life by scoring from the left point to cut the deficit to 2-1 with 1:33 remaining, Canada responded with a five-goal second period.
Barring a drastic turn of events, the likelihood of the United States facing Canada in the gold medal game for the sixth time in seven Olympic tournaments seems inevitable. The only exception was the Turin Games in 2006, when Sweden beat the United States in the semi-finals before losing to Canada.
“I really believe that Canada and the United States are playing on another planet right now,” Czech coach Tomas Pacina said. “It’s very mature hockey, very high-end hockey, very close to men’s hockey.”
Canada’s fast transition offense and emphasis on forechecking was evident against the Finns. Fillier opened the scoring 61 seconds later with a shot from the right circle, and Sarah Nurse scored 11 minutes later on Sanni Rantala’s gift.
The rout began when Brianne Jenner and Laura Stacey scored 2:08 apart to give Canada a 7-1 lead with 3:25 left in the second period, when each of their pass attempts were deflected by Finnish defenders.
“Not every game is going to look like this,” said Jenner, who scored three goals and added an assist. “But we are confident with this group, regardless of the score.”
Canada haven’t skipped a beat despite the absence of second-line winger Melodie Daoust, who is on day-to-day after sustaining an upper-body injury against Switzerland. Jamie Lee Rattray took Daoust’s place and finished with a goal and two assists.
“It shows how versatile everyone’s game is,” Fillier said. “They’re the top 23 players in Canada. So no matter where you put someone, it’s going to click.”
The 11 goals scored were the most scored by the Canadians against Finland in Olympic games or world championships. The 10-goal margin of defeat was the second-worst for the Finns behind an 11-0 loss to the United States at the 2012 world championships.
And to think that many outside of North America saw the 2019 world championships as a potential turning point. That’s when tournament host Finland stunned Canada with a 4-2 win in the semi-finals and earned a disallowed overtime goal as they beat the United States in an eventual 2-1 loss. in a shootout.
The difference, Puputti said, is that Finland does not have a large enough talent pool to replace players who have since retired. Another key factor is that the United States and Canada have the resources to centralize their teams in one location for the four months leading up to the Olympics.
Other nations, by comparison, run a limited number of week-long camps to accommodate their players’ work or college schedules. Finland have been further hampered by the loss of training time due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“I think you can see they’ve been together a lot,” Finland captain Jenni Hiirikoski said, before being asked to compare Canada and USA after playing the two in three days.
“Canada may be going a bit more towards the net. USA maybe trying to play a little more,” Hiirikoski said. “But tough teams. Good teams. They are really good.”
Four-time U.S. Olympian Hilary Knight disputed the idea of a widening gap after a victory in which the Americans edged the ROC 62-12.
“You know, 2019 isn’t that far away. You saw that final,” Knight said. “Everyone is good at this tournament. And that’s wonderful because I think it’s a testament to the growth of women’s hockey.”
But only a few apparently grow faster than others.